Cleveland (92.3 the Fan) – All seemed well when Danny Salazar got through the first inning unscathed. The righty then went on to allow four home runs, all solo shots, despite striking out nine Rays in five innings of work.
Manager Terry Francona was perplexed by Salazar’s early season troubles, citing those nine strikeouts, and both manager and player noted the starter’s increase in strikes. He threw 62 of 90 pitches over the plate, but not enough of them, approximately four too few, were quality strikes.
“I thought he came out of the gate and tried to find his stuff early,” Francona said. “It’s just, when he made a mistake, he really paid for it.”
Perhaps Tuesday night was not the best time for Salazar to try and throw strikes. The Rays are last in baseball in contact percentage (72.5%, almost 3 percentage points behind the Rangers) and swinging strike percentage (13%). Perhaps the 2016 All-Star could have used a little bit of that effective wildness.
The main culprit in the aggressive Rays lineup, Corey Dickerson, swings at the most pitches outside of the zone in baseball at 46.4%. His swinging strike percentage is 16th at 14.5%, and he swings at the third-highest percentage of pitches he sees overall at 58%.
It was not that Salazar did not know this, acknowledging how swing-happy Kevin Cash’s lineup is.
“They’re a really aggressive team,” he said. “Every time I miss a spot, that’s what’s going to happen.”
Catcher Yan Gomes was asked about whether or not the team changes their approach to a lineup based on their aggression. He declined to look at it in that wide of a scope, but said it is more dependent on the pitcher.
“Wherever the team is, we’re going to attack with our strength, and if it’s something that points out,” Gomes said. “Something that we’re going to be looking into, how aggressive they get, a lot of times teams make adjustments or try to make adjustments against us, we’ll just have to make an adjustment during the game.”
The 2016 All-Star came into the game with the lowest usage of his four-seam fastball by far, 25.3% comparted to 55.5% a year ago, and a heightened use of his two-seamer at 29.7%, compared to a career-high 18.1% in 2015.
The results had not been good, entering the night with the lowest pitch value on his primary pitch to date. That number didn’t get better, with three of the four big flies coming on his fastball, all low and away. The other was a slider left up to C Derek Norris.
“I missed spots with all of them,” Salazar said. “It doesn’t matter. The way I feel right now, it doesn’t matter what I do out there. They looked so comfortable against me today. The first inning, it was like, ‘I got this.’ But then after that, they got too comfortable.
Salazar may have been missing his spots, but missed them in an area where he has had success. Especially against right-handers, the low and away pitch has been key for the righty, though most likely because of the success of his changeup and slider.
The issue may still be with his fastball, and being able to work off of it. While the off-speed stuff has had higher returns, the Rays at least have been sitting on the hard stuff. That is where the long-balls came on Tuesday, and Salazar admitted his faith in himself is down.
“When you’re on the mound, you need to have confidence in your stuff,” he said. “When they start hitting it, that’s when I’m losing that confidence in myself or in my stuff. That might be what’s having me struggle right now. I’m going to keep working the way I’m doing it right now and I’m going to keep being aggressive.”